Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Caravaggio Mafia Heist

I'm in Palermo, where the presence and influence of La Cosa Nostra (the Sicilian mafia, literally translated as "Our Thing") is still considered impressive.  There once was a great Caravaggio painting to see here, "Nativity with Saints Francis and Lawrence," but it has now been undergroud for 41 years.

Some claim the painting was burned in the 1980s after being stored in a barn and badly eaten by rats and pigs.  But here's a 2005 article by Peter Robb that ran in the Telegraph, which tells a different story:

[On] a rainy autumn night 35 years ago, there was a stunning Nativity by Caravaggio hanging in a Palermo church. Some time between October 17 and 18 1969, it was cut with razor blades from its frame over the altar of the Oratory of San Lorenzo and was never seen again.

In the capital of Cosa Nostra, people knew what to think about this, or thought they did, but nobody talked. The silence lasted until November 1996, 27 years after the theft, when the former Mafia heroin refiner Francesco Marino Mannoia was giving evidence in the trial of Giulio Andreotti, the former prime minister who was accused of association with the Mafia. Andreotti was acquitted late last year.

Mannoia mentioned, quite parenthetically, that as a young man he had been one of those who stole the Caravaggio Nativity. It was, he said, a theft on commission, carried out so clumsily that the painting on the huge and crudely folded canvas – more than five square metres – was irreparably damaged. The person it was stolen for had burst into tears when he saw the ruined work and refused to take it.

A lot of other people felt like crying when they heard this. Earlier intimations from an undercover agent and a British journalist had suggested that the painting was intact, at least until the 1980s. Forget about it, Mannoia said he had told the murdered anti-Mafia prosecutor Giovanni Falcone.

This was the first account of the Caravaggio theft from inside Cosa Nostra and it seemed to end the story.

Three years after this, I was in Rome at the headquarters of the carabinieri's Art Work Protection Unit. I was looking into several matters and not getting much satisfaction.

A young officer with gleaming eyes and enormous carabinieri moustaches noticed my discontent. He drew me into his office and closed the door. He had overheard me mention Caravaggio and wanted to talk about the stolen Nativity.

"We know where it is," he said. "We're close to getting it back."

No recording, no note-taking allowed. What about Marino Mannoia? I asked. Mannoia was a serious and credible witness. Why would he lie about its destruction?

"He didn't lie. He just remembered wrongly. Another painting was stolen in Palermo around the same time. That's the one he took, the one that was ruined."

The young officer got excited and a colleague looked in to see why he was shouting. The Nativity was about to be recovered - I would see, the carabiniere said, and then I could tell the story.

The painting never was recovered, but a couple of years later the details of what the young officer had told me started filtering out. It was not, it turned out, a Cosa Nostra crime at all. The Nativity was stolen that wet Palermo night by local amateurs equipped with a blade and a three-wheeled delivery van. They had seen the painting on TV a few weeks before, in a programme on Italy's hidden treasures. They were amazed at its value and knew it was guarded only by an elderly janitor.

One of the thieves had a guest when they brought the canvas home. The visitor was on the run from the police and his brother was a mafioso. It was he who interceded the next day to save the fools who were now in bad trouble for operating on Mafia turf without Cosa Nostra's knowledge or consent, and to deliver the unexpected prize to Cosa Nostra. Years later, the visitor remembered that the painting was damaged in a lower corner - torn when caught in the door of a lift - and he recalled how they had all walked over the canvas when it was unrolled on the floor of the room he slept in. The Nativity passed from one Palermo boss to another to a third, Gerlando "The Rug" Alberti, commander of the Porta Nuova district in Palermo.

Alberti ran a heroin refinery outside Palermo, and for the next 12 years, until his arrest in 1981, he also tried to sell the Caravaggio Nativity. The unsaleable prize became a burden. He tried and failed to sell it in Switzerland, Italy and the US. Then Alberti was convicted of killing the owner of a seaside bathing establishment and sentenced to life in prison.

Earlier, he had buried an iron chest containing – apparently – five kilos of heroin, several million dollars in cash, and the Nativity rolled in a carpet. His nephew, Vincenzo La Piana, who dug the trench the chest was buried in, was arrested some years later and collaborated with the prosecutors. He took them to the place where the chest had been buried, warning them first that it was "unlikely my uncle would have left it there". The Rug hadn't.

The Rug's arrest had coincided with the beginning of the extermination phase of the Corleone Mafia's bid for control of Cosa Nostra. This lasted for most of the 1980s and Gerlando Alberti was a lucky one. The Nativity's previous owner, the Palermo boss Rosario Riccobono, was throttled in 1982 at a barbecue lunch organised for that purpose by the Corleonesi. The physical elimination of Palermo's old Mafia families has blocked the Nativity's recovery. The dead can't speak, the survivors, in jail or on witness protection, are no longer on top of things. The Rug knows, but as one of the losers, he has reason for silence.

The years pass and the number of people alive who have seen the painting diminishes. When Caravaggio's Nativity is recovered – and it will be – something may have survived. So what, from photographs, are we still missing?

Caravaggio's last big complex painting is a thrilling and scary revisitation of the central Christian myth. An exhausted and blankly post-partum Mary clutches her belly and stares at the thing on the ground just issued from her. A gymnastic boy angel plunges overhead. The scene is usurped by a lithe and wiry youth in silver hose and a green jacket, with spiky blond hair. With his back to the viewer, his foot touching the Christ child, he twists to face the aged Joseph with a vigorous gesture of disbelief.

1 comment: